Quickie: How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body

I was reading this New York Times article Sunday morning with interest as I’ve seen my fair share of yoga injuries and have experienced a couple as well.

The majority of injuries I’ve seen come from one of two sources (or, in some cases, a combination of both):

  1. Overly prescriptive ideas about yoga — that is, an attention to what the body should look like over and above attention to how the body feels. It’s one reason I’ve left studios and teachers that seem to have this not-good-for-me preoccupation.
  2. Wanting to enter poses and shapes and variations that either aren’t good for a particular body or aren’t good for that body right now. (A common example: straight legs in forward fold or down dog early on in a practice is all kinds of bad for me, even if I happily straighten my legs when I’m warmed up.)

Aside from that, while I don’t want to discount rarer injuries, it’s important to place them in that context of rarer injuries. I could hurt myself while running, while moving furniture, while playing with my dogs on the floor. And one of the ways I do commonly cause myself pain is to stay in a single position for too long (computer desk, I am looking at you!). So for me it’s also a matter of calculated risk — and yes, I’d rather risk theoretical injury from a mindful, reasonable asana practice than to pretty much guarantee myself pain from not doing it.

I know it’s a longer read, but I’m wondering if any of you read it — and if so, what did you think?

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12 comments on “Quickie: How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body
  1. Jessie E. says:

    I thought the article made sense, in the same way you did I think…it makes sense that if you practice non-mindfully, you will hurt yourself. Just like if you run non-mindfully or climb or drive non-mindfully you will hurt yourself!

    I also thought the bit on spinal stenosis was interesting…my dad recently had spinal stenosis, and what he was told was that it IS commonly caused by aging, not injury. Maybe the guy in the article had a different type, I don’t know.

    • Tori says:

      Regarding spinal stenosis, the Mayo Clinic does list the most common causes as age-related. It does look like spinal injuries can also cause it, but I don’t know that one would be able to rule out age as a contributing factor, at least in a fair number of cases.

  2. I think your link is borked, but from the NY Times piece, the guy essentially says that the problem is teachers who don’t let the students listen to their bodies than that yoga is harmful, and is just being a bit stupid about what this means. @_@

    • Tori says:

      Link should be fixed now, thanks.

      I have to wonder, though, how many (and how big-name) teachers are going the “my way or the highway” route that’s leading to injuries.

      I’ve practiced with a number of teachers who make it clear that certain types and intensities of sensations are warning signs — and who are good at providing accessible alternatives. But I’ve also been to some classes, workshops, and trainings where: a) the teacher’s word was law because that teacher was the latest local up and coming yoga celebrity; b) that teacher didn’t allow for the idea that not all bodies work the same. And it seems like teachers in the latter category have been somewhat more likely to become “buzzworthy popular” (popular in the sense that a lot of people are talking about them, that they’re getting local media coverage, etc. instead of just popular in the sense that people like to go to their classes).

      So I don’t think there’s anything to the idea that yoga is particularly harmful. But when it comes to teachers not letting students listen to their bodies, I do wonder if that is starting to affect more and more people.

  3. FarmerStina says:

    I’m really lucky in that the first yoga studio I picked is really really careful about yoga injuries. My teacher offers all poses as options and we regularly joke about just staying in Savasana for the whole class if that’s all we are up for doing.
    My reaction to the article was similar to yours. Most of the yoga injuries in the article seemed to be from people going to extremes or pushing themselves too far. I’m not too worried about my yoga practice causing me more pain than I would feel from a lack of practice.

    • Tori says:

      I’m equally lucky in that my first yoga studio in my town has led to the same effects. Any straying from that has been by my exploring other local yoga studios. They’re higher profile, so I worry that others might internalize their teachings, but they’re not mine so — I can only do so much.

  4. Tapetum says:

    As someone whose primary exercise is karate, I find it interesting how much the perception of yoga as non-hazardous affects the reaction to yoga-caused or exacerbated injuries. Despite the fact that children all over the country practice karate, and there are any number of hazardous “my way or the highway” sensei out there, nobody seems to get exercised about karate injuries, even quite preventable ones, because karate is supposed to be a rough and tumble sport. Whereas with yoga, there either seems to be a denial that it can cause harm, or overstated alarm because it’s not completely benign.

    I find your attitude sensible. Everybody’s body is different. Paying attention to how your body works, and what makes it feel and work its best and worst is the best way to avoid injury regardless of your sport.

  5. R. H. Ward says:

    I read the article and I’m working on a response post myself. Meanwhile, here’s what my friend Heather thought of it: http://nvnehi.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/from-om-to-ouch/ I really liked her take, and yours.

  6. I think your reaction makes a lot of sense, but I think the reason why the possibility of yoga injuries, even if most of them are quite rare, needs to be discussed more widely is because the popular understanding of yoga is that it is a healing activity, not a dangerous one or even a particular athletic one. I also think that this is largely problematic, but it is a good idea to draw attention to the fact that you CAN injure yourself doing yoga. However, you are right–the possibility of injury should not be used as a reason to abandon yoga, but just as a reason to approach it carefully and intelligently.

    • Tori says:

      Good point. I’ve spent so much time with a vinyasa practice as my primary (or at least most steady) form of physical exercise — and, quite frankly, a not small amount of time correcting people’s misconception that yoga can’t be athletic — that I forget that a lot of people have a physical practice whose only intent for them is to be healing and not athletic (and thus with injury as an inherent risk).

  7. […] are a few other responses to the article by nvnehi and anytimeyoga and Michael Taylor. I think it’s interesting to see the very different, thoughtful ways that […]

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